Kevin is well known for his love of G&T and for creation of East Imperial Tonic. He has been supporting the growth of Gin for almost half a decade, but how did he get there? What is he working on?
How old were you when you sipped on your first G&T? Did you like it?
I was around 14 years old, in Nairobi, Kenya – I remember it well. And I did like it!
Can you tell us more about your life before you started in the tonic business?
I was born in Madagascar but the family had been living in Kenya for 3 generations so the stories of Malaria and tonic / quinine for fighting Malaria have imbued my life from an early age. From Africa we moved to Asia and here is where I started my career with Walt Disney in Hong Kong before moving onto Diageo a few years later. I was always thinking marketing and drinks.
What made you decide to start a tonic brand?
I had started thinking about it while with Diageo in 2002. Seeing all the beauty of the botanicals at the Diageo Tanqueray distillery – juniper, coriander, Angelica, grapefruit – and seeing how so much of the botanical profile of the gin was lost with the common tonic.
The common tonics in the market at the time and right through until our launch in 2014 are based on a mass produced soft drinks not on traditional tonic water. There were no authentic tonic waters in the market at the time. What we had in the market was soft drinks using artificial ingredients or natural premium soft drink tonics that are full of sugar and match the high citric acid content of the artificial tonics.
I wanted to bring back proper tonic water not a soft drink. And wanted to bring back the tradition with the original ingredients from Asian sugar cane to the Javanese Quinine.
I wanted to bring back what was in my Great Grand Dad’s tumbler at the turn of the century in East Africa and East Asia when he was using his tonic as the antidote to stop malaria. Back to the real tradition of tonic waters.
The actual moment I decided to quit Diageo and start on this journey I can still remember.
I was in Singapore and having a G&T with my wife at the Fullerton Bay hotel just when it opened around 2010. I ordered a Tanqueray and tonic. I was served at the table a Watsons can of tonic and highball glass of Tanqueray with a small bit of ice for my G&T – and at that moment I knew it was time to quit Diageo and start working on proper tonic for proper G&Ts at proper hotels and bars.
Can you share some interesting facts about tonic?
It takes over seven years from tree to tonic. Seven years for the Cinchona tree to be ready to produce high alkaline bark that is then scraped, dried in the sun for 21 days, heated for 12 hours and then pulverized to make a brown bark powder. Which is the original quinine powder. We then refine further to make a clear powder for our tonic water.
You have several flavoured tonics, which one is your favourite?
Depending on the gin there are different tonics that are the perfect complement. I am a big fan of our original Old World Tonic that really lets the gin do the talking. And also it is so versatile with half the sugar, compared to other tonics, and just a pinch of citric acid – this tonic can be used for Rum and tonics or vermouth and tonics
Your brand has been successful, and is distributed worldwide – which one of the markets is your favourite and why?
The DNA of East Imperial is steeped in Asia and the majority of our ingredients come from the region so my heart is in Asia and it is our home. For export markets outside of our home area, one of our favorites is the Czech Republic where many of our supporters come from and where the hospitality community is one of the best in the world.
What is the most common reaction that you hear from the public and/or the industry when they talk about tonic? Do you have interesting story to tell?
I remember when I first walked into Death & Co with my brown quinine powder and hand bottle tonics – the reaction was incredible because back then people had not seen the original cinchona powder or know the 400 years of Quinine history. The bartenders were so interested and curious to learn about what tonic water really was before it became a soft drink. Their enthusiasm, passion and interest and encouragement really spurred me on to create a line of tonics based on what was in my Great Grand Dad’s tumbler and to up hold that tradition.
You are the founder of Gin Jubilee in Asia, can you share with us more about this years’ activation?
This will be our 6th year and each year we are trying to out-do ourselves. We are still in the planning phases but expect it to be better than ever.
If you were to predict the next drinking trend – what would it be?
In Alcohol we see the trend to Low ABV and healthier and lower calorie drinks.
In Non-alcholol we see more distilled soft drinks or drinks with distillates a fancy term for what we all do which is create extractions through distillation nothing really new here but being marketed as unique and different.
And of course a move sustainability in all aspects of the industry.
What is your favourite soft drink?
I am currently on a carbonate Yerba Mate kick but my favorite of all time is our brewed ginger beer.
What are your hobbies?
Traveling with my family and enjoying G&Ts with friends in the industry.
What are your dreams?
I really want to give back to the communities we work with in Thailand, Indonesia and Kenya and create something long lasting for the families there.
Can you share more about the next steps for East Imperial?
We have a very exciting year ahead with a few unique launches in the pipeline. Both launches are first of their kind in the industry so it will be very interesting to see the reaction.
What is your favourite garnish for a G&T?
All depends on the gin and the tonic – recently Mint with the Yuzu tonic (thank you Eduard Ondracek) and when I was in London having a Porter’s gin with lavender (thank you Alex Lawrence) – makes a lovely G&T.
What is your prefered serving glass: rocks, highball or coppa?
When done right the Coppa is beautiful – The Conrad Centennial team in Singapore has been doing such a fantastic job with their G&T program. Large Coppa glasses, amazing large blocks of ice, garnish, gin, tonic and bitters to hold it all together. If you have not been down there please go and have a few G&Ts.
Thank you Kevin for your time! We’re looking forward to seeing your new products! Can’t wait to taste them!